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Is Social Conversation a Myth?

Authors: Jay Baer Jay Baer
Posted Under: Social Media
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Mitch Joel, whose blog and work I greatly admire, wrote a very interesting blog post recently that bemoaned the lack of conversation in social media. As coined by Joseph Jaffesocial-conversation (another good guy who was incidentally the very first guest on my series of live Twitter interviews), businesses have been trying to Join the Conversation for a while now. Yet, Mitch doesn’t see it happening in social media. He writes:

There is not much conversation going on at all.

Here’s what I do see:

  • Blogs that have comments, with little back and forth. Some Bloggers respond to the comments and some don’t.
  • Those that do have comments, usually have no further comment from the person who left a comment in the first place. That’s not a conversation. That’s feedback.
  • Individuals not leaving a comment to engage in a conversation, but simply to promote their own links or to chest-thump.
  • Twitter doesn’t really bring out a conversation. It’s a great place to broadcast and get some quick tidbits, but let’s face it, unless you’re creating spiritual and motivation tweets, it’s hard to have substance in 140 characters (or less – if you’re looking for a retweet).
  • Even in cool arenas like the #blogchat that takes place on Twitter every Sunday night, it feels more like everyone screaming a thought at once than a conversation that can be followed and engaged with.
  • Facebook has some great banter with the wall posts and status updates, but it’s more chatty than conversational and it’s not an open/public environment.

None of this is a bad thing… it just is.

Expect Less

I can see where Mitch is coming from. The increasing prevalence of social media is creating a lock step increase in uni-directional social media chest thumping. But what do we expect? That somehow we’re going to devise all these weird new technologies that allow us to send messages back and forth in cyberspace, and that somehow conversation is actually going to improve? We’ve been on a downhill slide conversationally ever since Alexander Graham Bell uttered “Mr. Watson—come here—I want to see you.”

To expect social media to truly emulate conversation as we know it is a fools errand. The information exchange is asynchronous. You can’t have asides (other than DMs). You miss out on any and all non-verbal communication (which is the lions share of how we actually communicate).

The real problem is expectation management. Joe Jaffe coined “conversation” (wisely), but it’s a misnomer. Other than a tweet back and forth, etc. it’s really not possible for a company (or even an individual like me) to have true conversations within social media – and certainly not with any real scale or breadth.

But Don’t Settle for Less

Now, there’s a difference between striving for conversation and settling for broadcasting. The success path must lie somewhere in the middle of those two boundaries. That’s why “humanization” is – at least to me – a better and more accurate description of what companies and individuals can and should aspire to achieve on the social Web. Opening the kimono and giving customers and prospects a better sense of who is part of the company, how that company operates, and what it stands for in a less formal, more spontaneous fashion is doable. Remember, social media makes big companies seem small again. And that’s a worthy objective. Real, meaningful conversations? Not so much.

It’s like consultants telling companies to be “transparent”. Sure, we’ll just post every company memo, financial statement, legal preceding, etc. on our website. That’ll be great. I love what my friend Beth Harte has to say on this issue. She believes the best we can hope for is “translucency” – and I concur.

Is Technology the Problem, or the Solution?

The problem is not that people are too infatuated with their “personal brands” and refuse to engage meaningfully. Instead, our lack of social conversation is a byproduct of technological realities that do nothing but create obstacles for actual conversation. If you wanted to create a system that replicated as best as possible the physical act of two people speaking to one another in the same place at the same time, would you build Twitter, or a WordPress comment system, or Facebook, or Linkedin? Absolutely not. Google Wave was the closest we’ve come, and that got killed off faster than the new Knight Rider TV show. We can’t continue jamming a square peg in a round hole hoping it will eventually fit, and then being frustrated when it doesn’t.

But yet, the fact that true conversations per se are unlikely shouldn’t serve as sufficient cultural permission to turn social media into Headline News. There’s a happy medium, right?

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